BARRANQUILLA, Colombia (Mennonite Mission Network) — Sixteen years ago, Edwin Cardona tried to make a pact with the devil. He promised his soul in exchange for being granted everything he wanted in this life.
The devil didn’t keep his side of the bargain.
Cardona discovered that Jesus, not the devil, could give him the life he was looking for. Today, 16 years later, his family has found freedom from their past and a new life in Christ. As the leaders of a new church in a poor neighborhood, they are reaching out to the children of the local school where their fellowship meets. This outreach led to an invitation to manage the struggling school and sparked the dreams of neighborhood renewal.
By spreading Christ’s love throughout the neighborhood, the Cardonas and their small congregation are transforming lives as they themselves were transformed. Despite a scarcity of resources, they now rely on God to provide for a lunch program for children, a local health campaign and leadership training for two more church plants inspired by their work.
God, they are discovering, is providing what was promised.
After making his agreement with the devil years ago, Cardona had struggled to support his family. He was unfaithful to his wife, Yasmin. Two of their three children were born with medical problems. Soon after their family moved from another city to Barranquilla, Colombia, Yasmin lost her memory and left the family. For a month she wandered the city streets with their youngest child.
Was it witchcraft or a mental illness? Cardona did not know.
During that month, the Cardona family’s lives changed. Jorge Alonso and Javier García invited Edwin Cardona to Encuentro de Renovación (Place of Renewal), a Mennonite congregation in northern Barranquilla. They prayed for him, and when Yasmin was found Cardona also brought her to the church for prayer and healing.
“That one October night in 2003, the Lord Jesus Christ came to me in a dream and asked me to pick what I wanted to do with the situation I was going through,” Cardona said. “I made my choice and his words were ‘Take your cross and follow me,’ and this is what I try to do.”
Gamaliel and Amanda Falla of Mennonite Mission Network say the Cardona family is one of many who have found Christ through the Colombian Mennonite Church. In the five years since the Fallas were called to be church planters, the Encuentro de Renovación congregation has developed and grown. Currently more than 70 people attend regularly.
“The Mennonite church offers alternatives,” Gamaliel Falla said.
Decades of political violence between the government and opposition groups have displaced many people. Young and old alike are attracted to the Barranquilla congregation’s vision: “We are a community transformed by the power of the holistic gospel, with the capacity to propose new alternatives to life within our society.”
Three months ago, the Cardonas began a new church called Encuentro Renovación de Ciudad Bonita (Place of Renewal for the Beautiful City). This offshoot group from the main Encuentro de Renovación church meets in the Ciudad Bonita (beautiful city) neighborhood on the outskirts of the city. The neighborhood, one of the poorest and most run-down in Barranquilla, is a “beautiful city” in name only.
The group of 35 began meeting in people’s homes during the week to pray and study the Bible. One member knew of a struggling school in the neighborhood with only one volunteer teacher and 20 pupils, where the group began having their weekly Sunday worship services.
Before long, they felt God calling them to help the school.
“I finally surrendered myself to the Lord and said, ‘Do what you want with me, I will work when you tell me,’” said Cardona. “And since then the Lord has guided me to do service for others.”
The Cardonas, often joined by their two oldest children, Jeymi and Jean Carlos, work with other church members to provide lunches for the school children on Thursdays and Fridays. The children’s families pay what they can toward the cost of the lunches; Iglesia Evangélica Elim (Elim Evangelical Church), a congregation in Miami, partners with Encuentro Renovación to supplement funding.
Every Saturday afternoon, the group plans special activities for the kids. Soccer rules as their favorite pastime, and table games are also a popular choice.
Thrilled by the program’s success, the community offered to let the Encuentro Renovación group take over management of the school.
Although excited by the opportunity, the already-struggling group cannot afford to take on more financial responsibility at this time. They are looking at fund-raising options that would allow them to take this new step in their ministry.
Even though this ministry is in the beginning stages, the Cardona family and others involved are already imagining what could happen in the future.
Their dreams include starting a health campaign in the neighborhood. They visualize bringing in doctors, dentists and medications to serve the disadvantaged residents. They would also like to hire more teachers for the small school, where Edwin now teaches religion classes.
Encuentro de Renovación also inspired two other church plants, one in Sahagún and one in the southern part of Barranquilla, and supports an early church plant in Riohacha.
The Fallas assist each of these budding fellowships by mentoring leaders, teaching short courses and making encouragement visits.
“Leadership training is very important for the future of the church here,” Amanda Falla said. “From within the church come leaders that are going to continue the growth in local and regional churches.”
Cardona is one of those leaders. He now serves on the leadership team at Encuentro de Renovación and is a witness to many of how God’s love can transform a family, a school and possibly a whole neighborhood.